Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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Location: Missouri

I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Communist Dream in Southern Missouri

I’ve written previously on this blog about Alcander Longley and his communist settlements in Jasper County near present-day Oronogo called the Reunion Community and in Dallas County just west of Buffalo called the Friendship Community. The former Community (Longley’s capitalization) existed from early 1868 to late 1870 and the latter from the spring of 1872 until the summer of 1877. However, Longley’s dream was far from over. He was nothing if not a true believer, and he spent the rest of his life trying to establish a successful communist settlement in Missouri. The son of a Universalist minister, Longley was born in Ohio in 1832 and was exposed to liberal views at an early age. As a young man he lived in several experimental settlements based on association and sharing. In his thirties, he embraced communism and came to St. Louis in 1867 to organize the Reunion Community. Longley thought of communism outside of politics and was not a fan of Karl Marx. He was, instead, an advocate of what he called practical communism, feeling that people should join together in mutual aid to form self-sustaining communes. Longley started publishing a newspaper called the Communist to promote his effort.
After the Reunion Community and the Friendship Community collapsed, Longley helped start a commune on forty acres near Lutesville in Bollinger County in May 1879. It was also called the Friendship Community, but it was even shorter lived than its like-named predecessor.
Longley lived in St. Louis at the time of the 1880 census, but by the spring of 1881 he was back living on the Dallas County property near Buffalo. On May 21, he and a few associates started the Principia Community in Polk County near present-day Halfway. Longley briefly joined the group but became disillusioned with way the community was being run and went back to Buffalo.
In July of 1883, Longley started another commune, called the Mutual Aid Society, on 160 acres about a mile north of the Glenallen railroad depot in Bollinger County. In June 1885, a woman left her home in Ohio in answer to a circular Longley sent out promoting the place. When she got to Glenallen, she found Longley the only person living on the farm. She left in anger, accusing him of trying to take her money.
Longley left Glenallen about April of 1885 and established yet another communist group, called the Altruist Community, at Sulphur Springs in Jefferson County. Longley himself stayed at the location only two months before once again going back to St. Louis.
But he never gave up on his dream. In the early to mid-1890s, he was involved in communist communities in Arkansas and northern Missouri. In late 1898 and early 1899 he helped organize a community called Altro about four miles northwest of Williamsville in Wayne County. He visited the place a few times but maintained his residence in St. Louis.
In 1901 Longley traded his land in Wayne County for an eight-acre plot at Sulphur Springs, where he once again proposed to start a new community. He spent the last seventeen years of his life promoting the Altruist Community, but his latest venture was hardly more successful than his earlier ones. He died at Chicago in 1918.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Gads Hill Train Robbery

Gads Hill, Missouri, was named after Gads Hill, England, which served as the summer home of Charles Dickens and had earlier been immortalized by Shakespeare as the place where Falstaff committed a robbery in the opening scene of Henry IV. Ironically, the namesake American village was also the scene of a notorious holdup, the first train robbery in Missouri. Although it was not the same Gads Hill, the “Missouri cutthroats,” according to one account, “were quite as audacious” as the Shakespeare characters.
About 3:30 p.m. January 31, 1874, just two years after Gads Hill had been established along the Iron Mountain Railroad in northwest Wayne County, five desperadoes rode into the village and took over the place. Gads Hill consisted only of a general store, a sawmill, and a platform that served as the train depot. The gang robbed the storeowner and rounded up all the other people in the small community, amounting to about a dozen individuals. Each of the outlaws carried at least two Navy revolvers, and three had double-barreled shotguns. Flourishing their weapons, they compelled the captives to stand on the platform while they relieved them of their money. Meanwhile, one of the gang threw a switch on the railroad so that the next train would be shunted to a siding and have to stop.
The Little Rock Express from St. Louis was delayed, forcing the bandits and their hostages to wait more than an hour. To ward off the January chill, they huddled around a bonfire near the platform until the train finally came into sight about 4:45 p.m. One of the gang grabbed a red flag and started waving it as a signal for the train to stop. The train consisted of a combination express/baggage/mail car, two passenger coaches, a sleeper, and the locomotive. As the engineer slowed the train to a crawl, the conductor stepped onto the platform, and a large masked man immediately shoved a pistol in his face. One of the robbers took the conductor’s gold watch but handed it back upon orders from his “captain.”
Two outlaws jumped onto the locomotive and made the engineer and fireman get down, while two others hauled a brakeman and the baggage man out of the baggage car. Returning to the baggage car, a couple of the bandits rummaged through the mail, stealing registered letters. Then they turned their attention to the express messenger, forcing him at gunpoint to turn over his keys to the safe, from which they took over $1,000 in cash.
Next, the thieves went through the coaches accosting the passengers. They took all the money they could get but were more selective with the valuables they appropriated. Besides returning the conductor’s watch, the outlaws passed over another gold watch and several silver watches. The conductor later remarked that the bandits “didn’t seem to care for watches.”
After stealing all the money they could lay their hands on and all the valuables they took a fancy to, the outlaws mounted up and rode off toward the northwest. Initial reports put their total take anywhere from $2,000 to over $20,000. The best estimate seems to be somewhere around $3,000.
Reports also differed regarding the number of bandits. Some said seven, but most said five. The best evidence suggests the lower number is correct. The identity of the thieves was unknown at first as well, although within a day or two, a man named McCoy and two Younger brothers had been tentatively named as being with the gang. It has since been established that Frank and Jesse James, John Younger, and either Cole or Jim Younger composed four of the gang. The fifth member might have been the other Younger brother, Arthur McCoy, or one of several other men.
Pinkerton agents trailed the robbers to western Missouri, and one of the officers was found dead on March 11, just after visiting the James home in Clay County. On March 17, another Pinkerton agent and a local deputy were killed in St. Clair County by Jim and John Younger. The shootout also left John Younger dead.

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Barker Gang and the Murder of Sheriff Kelly

Landlords nowadays often require folks wishing to rent a house or apartment to fill out applications so they can do background checks on the applicants before letting strangers move onto their property. Such was not the case in 1931 when an older couple, giving their names as Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Dunlop, showed up at Thayer, Missouri, about October 12 of that year and rented a farmhouse from Wellington McClelland in an out-of-the-way area about two miles east of town. The free-spending Dunlop, who let it be known that he was a retired farmer who’d made his money from oil lands in Oklahoma, just plunked down the cash and moved in. A day or two later, two young men, whom Dunlop introduced as his son and nephew, moved in with the couple. In an era before instant background checks, McClelland had no way of knowing that “Mrs. Dunlop” was actually Arizona Kate “Ma” Barker, that one of the young men was her murderous son Fred, and that the other was the notorious Alvin Karpis.
Over the next few weeks, Karpis and Fred Barker pulled off a string of crimes in the area, including the burglary of McCallon’s clothing store in West Plains on Thursday night, December 17. On Saturday morning the 19th, Karpis pulled his 1931 blue De Soto into Davidson’s garage in West Plains to have two flat tires repaired, with Fred Barker riding shotgun. The car matched the description of a vehicle seen near McCallon’s store on the night of the burglary, and garage owner Carac Davidson immediately relayed his suspicions to Howell County sheriff C.R. “Roy” Kelly. Still seated in the car when the sheriff showed up to investigate, Barker and Karpis immediately gunned the lawman down when he walked up to the driver’s side door of the De Soto. Accounts of the murder differ, but the best evidence suggests that Barker opened fire first with a .45 caliber automatic pistol and fired the fatal shots. He then jumped out of the vehicle and ran around to the other side to continue shooting as Kelly fell, while Karpis chimed in with a .38 caliber revolver.
After the shooting, Karpis roared out of the garage in the De Soto, and Barker escaped on foot through the streets of West Plains. Bloodhounds were put on Barker’s trail but to no avail. The De Soto was found later on Saturday a mile or so east of Thayer, where Karpis had abandoned it, and the gang was soon traced to the nearby McClelland farmhouse. Described as a four-room cottage on a high knoll back away from the road, the house reportedly offered a view of the surrounding countryside for miles around, and by the time authorities arrived, the birds had flown. In their haste to escape, the renters had left behind papers definitely identifying them as the Barker-Karpis gang, and photographs of most of the gang members, including Kate Barker, were also discovered. Much of the merchandise taken in the burglary of the McCallon store was recovered as well.
Funeral services for Sheriff Kelly were held on Monday, December 21. Shortly afterwards, his widow, Lulu Kelly, was selected to fill his unexpired term as sheriff of Howell County. One of her first actions was to offer, jointly with the West Plains police chief, rewards for the arrest and conviction of the Barker-Karpis gang members, including $100 for “Old Lady Arrie Barker, mother of Fred Barker.” This was apparently the first official notice by law enforcement of Ma Barker, who would go on to become infamous as a reputed leader of the gang, although she was, in fact, mostly just an overindulgent mother who felt her villainous sons could do no wrong.
Sources: FBI files, Howell County Gazette, West Plains Journal.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Cost of Hanging a Man

I occasionally hear politicians as well as everyday citizens gripe about the slow turning of the wheels of justice in our modern legal system, and often the critics point to how much more swiftly punishment was meted out in the old days. There's some truth to this contention, of course, and in some cases nowadays the wheels have ground almost to a halt. However, complaints about the slow pace of justice are nothing new. In early 1895, the Missouri state auditor issued a report stating that the costs of prosecuting criminals in the state were increasing at the rate of $50,000 to $75,000 a year without a proportionate increase in crime, and the Jefferson City Tribune editorialized on the subject, claiming that most of the increase was a result of "unnecessary delays" occasioned by continuances and changes of venue. The case of Wils Howard, who had recently been hanged at Lebanon, was cited as an example. "There was never any question as to Howard's guilt," said the newspaper, "and yet it required two years and cost the state some $6,000 to hang him."
On the night of April 27, 1889, Thomas McMichael, whom newspapers identified as a deaf mute peddler, was murdered near Vienna, Missouri, presumably for his money. The Missouri governor promptly offered a $350 reward leading to the arrest of the guilty party or parties. Wilson ""Wils" Howard was soon identified as the assailant, but by then he had returned to his home state of Kentucky, where he had previously been involved in the notorious Howard-Turner feud of Harlan County and had earned a reputation as a desperate character. The feud dated back to 1882 when Bob Turner was shot to death by Wilks Howard, uncle of Wils. After Wilks was acquitted, the feud escalated over the next few years, and Wils Howard killed at least three Turner allies before absconding to Missouri in 1886.
But after killing Thomas McMichael, Wils was back in Harlan County, and he promptly took up leadership of the Howard faction as the feud continued to rage, reportedly involving almost everybody in the whole county. On October 19, 1889, John Howard, brother of Wils, was shot and badly wounded at Harlan Courthouse, the county seat. In response, Wils organized a party of about forty men and threatened to ride in and take over the town, which was held by the Turner faction under the leadership of a local judge named Lewis. On October 22, the Lewis group, numbering about 50, attacked the Howard faction about a mile outside town, killing one instantly and wounding six others, including Wils Howard. A few days later, the Howard bunch retaliated, killing two men of the Turner faction.
In the spring of 1890. Judge Lewis asked for and received state troops to help preserve order, and the Howard faction clashed briefly with the troops. When the state troops went out to try to arrest Wils Howard and some of the other leaders of the Howard faction, Wils again fled the territory, this time going to California.
In California, Wils Howard was promptly arrested under the name of John Brooks for robbing a Wells Fargo stage and sentenced to eight years in San Quentin. Detective Imboden of Missouri tracked him down there and, with permission from the California governor, brought him back here in December of 1890 to stand trial for murdering McMichael.
After four continuances and a change of venue from Maries to Laclede County, Howard was finally convicted of murder in early 1893 and sentenced to hang on April 7. In the meantime, he was taken to St. Louis for safekeeping. Appeals to the Missouri Supreme Court and to the governor delayed the carrying out of the sentence, but Howard finally reached the end of his rope, both figuratively and literally, on January 19, 1894, at Lebanon. Before he was hanged, Howard admitted killing several men in Kentucky, but he proclaimed his innocence in the McMichael murder. Thus ended the long ordeal of bringing a desperado to justice.

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